This is the second short review blogpost (of three) in which representations of music in current comics are surveyed.
Black Science #35-36
Authors: Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Moreno Dinisio (colourist)
Publication Dates: May – June 2018
Pages per issue: 22
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: Dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay and his ex-wife Sara are stranded at the ‘Interdimensional Institute for Marital Restoration’. In issue #35, said Institute sends Sara to another dimension in which her dream of becoming a musical actress on Broadway has come true. Sara is shown performing in her musical on three panels; musical notes around her speech balloons (plus her dramatic poses) indicate that she’s singing. It’s hard to tell what the music is supposed to sound like – if it is being performed by an orchestra or band, we don’t get to see it. Which says quite a lot about Broadway musicals and the end to which they are invoked here: to Grant and Sara, it doesn’t matter which genre the music belongs to, what the lyrics are about, or whether it is good or bad; the only thing that matters is that Sara has made it to Broadway.
In issue #36 there is another instance of music being performed. Grant and Sara are in a dream-like world in which they attend a wedding party. They meet old friends there, except everything and everyone looks like it’s 1920. Once more the music is depicted in three panels: the first two show wedding guests dancing, and in the background of the third we see the musicians playing; apparently a four-piece jazz band. Interestingly, there are no floating musical notes here, and before the musicians are shown, the only things that indicate music is being played are the dancers and a character prompting Grant and Sara to dance too.
The rest: The series is already announced to end with issue #42, which is a pity. Still, having the same creative team (except for the colourist) create a story of almost 1000 pages is a rare treat nowadays, and it makes for a coherent and homogeneous comic. Black Science is a complex and finely crafted psychological science fiction story – perhaps one of the finest in comic form.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Continuing from the previous post, let’s turn to a gender bias test that some people believe to be superior to the Bechdel Test. In an interview last year, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel) said,
Nevermind the Bechdel test, try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. They have to be protagonists, not devices.
This seems even more difficult to put into practice than the Bechdel Test. Is there a scholarly sound way to determine if a story “works”? Anyway, I’m going to try this test with two recent comic books written by Rick Remender. Mind you, that selection doesn’t mean I think Rick Remender is a sexist writer or anything. It’s just that he’s writing a lot of comic books at the moment, and by pure coincidence I happened to have read two of them, Black Science #1 and Uncanny Avengers #14. And who knows, maybe this comparison will reveal something about different attitudes towards gender issues at Image and Marvel, respectively.
The science fiction story Black Science (art by Matteo Scalera and Dean White, published by Image) starts with dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay running away from fish monsters. He is accompanied by a sexy lamp in a space suit, and his internal monologue is addressed at another sexy lamp. Weird, but not that important for the story. His flight leads him to the den of some frog men, who have captured and enslaved a sexy lamp. McKay frees that lamp and returns her to the fish men, whereupon they become less hostile. There are some more sexy lamps towards the end of the issue, but they are not that significant.
Overall, the story works almost as well with sexy lamps instead of female characters. The “damsel in distress” motif at work here is almost as objectifying as turning her into a lamp.
Uncanny Avengers #14 (pencils by Steve McNiven, inks by John Dell, colours by Laura Martin, published by Marvel) is part of a somewhat convoluted story. The gist is that one sexy lamp with magical powers wants to perform a ritual to defeat the two major supervillains of this story (one of which is a sexy lamp), while two other superheroes (again, one of them a sexy lamp) try to stop her because they think the ritual will help the villains. Of course, this conflict is resolved by means of a lot of fighty-fighty, in the course of which one sexy lamp kills another, only to be killed in turn by one of the supervillains.
Clearly, this fighting and killing makes much more sense when done by the Scarlet Witch and Rogue, rather than by some sexy lamps. Therefore, Uncanny Avengers #14 passes the Sexy Lamp Test, whereas Black Science #1 fails.
Does that mean Uncanny Avengers is less gender biased then Black Science? Not necessarily. The problem with the Sexy Lamp Test is, it “rewards” comics with female characters who say and do a lot, but it doesn’t judge what they say and do. Despite their importance to the story, the female characters in Uncanny Avengers are “lazily” written – all women in this comic book could just as well be men (and vice versa) and nothing would change (except for Wonder Man and Scarlet Witch becoming a gay couple). These female superheroes are just male superheroes with breasts. On the other hand, the femaleness of the enslaved fish woman in Black Science reveals the society of the frog men as patriarchic, and thus at least serves a purpose within the story.
Therefore, I don’t think the Sexy Lamp Test is better at detecting gender bias than the Bechdel Test. They just point out different aspects of gender bias (in speech vs. in narrative function), so maybe they are best used in combination.